Where habit took me…
I’ve spent the past days looking at my habits, which is easier to do when my partner is away. Much of what we do together started as ritual and has become habitual.
So I parsed the words in various contexts and decided:
A habit is more often involuntary.
A ritual is done with intention.
I chose to explore muscle memory for habit.
Our body’s reactions to stress and malleability to our beliefs is mostly subconscious.
When I was little, I studied ballet for a brief period.
Correct posture was one of the first things we learned. I became obsessed with rolling my shoulder blades flat against my back.
It became an involuntary twitch.
Then, a jokester told me if I kept doing it, my arms would fall off.
I needed to do as many rotations forwards as backwards to prevent it.
Thus began my habit of shrugging my shoulders while counting to make sure my arms stayed in the socket.
I broke my right arm and wore a full cast.
That solved the shrugging habit, but led to something else.
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My arm was bent at the elbow & my hand dangled.
In the full cast, my right arm was tucked close across the front of my body in a sling. Over the course of the summer, I graduated to a half-cast at the elbow.
My bicep had been inactive for months, and I maintained the same arm position with the half-cast as I did with the full.
Just before our move to Michigan, the cast was removed.
But because I was so young, maybe five or six, my right arm had atrophied. And, it was only comfortable in the bent position.
I couldn’t straighten it at my side.
My habit of standing with my right arm bent and my right hand relaxed at the wrist invited a lot of taunting as a new kid at a new school.
“Oh my gawd, you’re so gay!” they would laugh.
Apparently, my new posture was one for the gays, but this didn’t bother me. My aunt was gay. I loved her. My mom’s friend was gay. He was an amazing artist.
These kids weren’t going to make me change my ways!
Over time, the muscles in my right arm naturally caught up. I played tennis against a wall after school to Karen Carpenter singing I’m on top of the world!
But my right arm never regained its full power…
My habit, as a right-handed person, is to use that arm to support myself when I fall. The left arm, my stronger arm, lets the weaker do the emergency work.
In my twenties, I fell while ice skating and tore the labrum in my right shoulder.
I was already into my fourth year of a consistent yoga practice. I was also a bartender who hand-muddled hundreds of mojitos a night.
I couldn’t imagine being without the use of my arm.
I dedicated myself to re-patterning.
I had to train my body to react differently to break my habit.
Through years of yoga, massage therapy, weightlifting, stretching with elastic bands, and patience, I’m 60% there.
I know that weight on the joint causes discomfort which becomes pain, so my right shoulder muscles have to be stronger than the gravitational pull on my arm.
As a result, the rest of my body benefits from the process.
What began as a bad habit has become a ritual of strength.
YOUR TURN: Where does the theme of HABIT take you? We tend to look at habits as bad, although - like with my partner - our habits mostly benefit us, except for when Jägermeister is on the menu!
What makes a habit “bad”? Can a bad habit become a good one?
There’s no wrong answer here. Nuns have habits.
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The orthopedic surgeon laughed when I couldn't answer his question. "You don't remember if you had surgery on your rotator cuff? I know you did. It's in your records." Well, when you have had as many surgeries and procedures as I have, they all run together. It's a habit, being used to pain. Like any other practice, you don't always realize that you are doing it until someone else points it out. I am trying to break the pattern. "How long have you lived with this pain?" is a question I have often gotten from doctors. Not anymore. As soon as my shoulder started crunching again, I made an appointment. Diagnosis? Tendinitis of right rotator cuff. A quick shot of steroids, a little physical therapy and I am right as rain. Again. My list of diagnoses (just from the orthopedic offices) include: Contusion of right wrist, Trochanteric bursitis of right hip, Lumbar spondylosis, Rotator cuff (capsule) sprain, Overweight. Oh. Yes, well, that’s the thing about bad habits. You have to WANT to break them.
Three Christmases ago, my son gave me Gretchen Rubin's book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. People have different tendencies with regard to habits and expectations, she said. I tend to be an Upholder, a rule-follower who likes to meet both outer and inner expectations. The three other tendencies are: Questioner (resists outer, meets inner), Obliger (meets outer, resists inner), and Rebel (resists both outer and inner expectations). Of course, the tendencies overlap; I question, oblige, and rebel, too. As questioner and rebel, I’m not a fan of best-selling, self-help books, but the obliger in me at least skims a book I've been given. Upholders are, as Rubin wrote, “…self-directed and have little trouble meeting commitments, keeping resolutions, or meeting deadlines… They want to understand the rules…” But, she continues, “Upholders may struggle in situations where expectations aren’t clear or the rules aren’t established.” In other words, if I don't schedule an activity, it probably won't happen. Because, like it or not, I am a creature of habit.